Rhoda Joseph on leading Cambridge's Grand Arcade into its 10th year
The centre manager talks Tesla, Disney and how shopping is changing.
Rhoda Joseph puts her arrival at Cambridge’s most illustrious shopping destination down to serendipity.
But, in many ways, it sounds as if it was always meant to be.
“I fell into the shopping centre management business as my third job and I had no idea why shopping centres would ever need managing,” she says. “It was one of three vacancies I applied for. It has done me well for the rest of my life… and I can now bore everyone rigid with why you need to manage a shopping centre!”
After starting out in the West Midlands, Rhoda spent some years in Oxford, looking after the Westgate shopping centre and enjoyed a secondment to the “iconic” Union Station mall in Washington DC, owned by the same company.
Spells in Fareham and Portsmouth followed, but the south coast was a long way from family and Rhoda looked for a new opportunity.
“It was one of those serendipitous moments,” she says. “I was chatting to a colleague and found out Cambridge was coming up. It was top of my list…”
After a selection process Rhoda politely describes as “rigorous” – “so many interviews” she adds, as if still recovering – she responded to news that she was the new general manager of the Grand Arcade in understated style.
“I was dancing around the office,” she admits, with a smile. “I was so delighted.
“When I first came here, through the St Andrew’s Street entrance, it lit up – all the honey and caramel colours and I looked at the design with the balustrades… I didn’t think I could fall in love with a shopping centre, but I did.”
Next year, the Grand Arcade will celebrate its 10th anniversary.
“There will be balloons…” promises Rhoda.
The centre opened in March 27, 2008, some months after its anchor store, John Lewis, which began trading on November 8, 2007.
Events to mark the anniversary year are being planned now but the focus is ensuring the Grand Arcade enters its 10th year in the rudest of retail health.
“We’ll be working with our retailers to promote the anniversary, to bring in new retail names and to retain the ones we already have,” adds Rhoda.
As anyone who has walked past will have noticed, a Calvin Klein Underwear store is currently being dressed near the St Andrew’s Street end, ready for opening in early November “for all those people who don’t know what to get their loved ones for their Christmas stocking”, as Rhoda puts it.
And Rhoda confirmed that a pop-up Disney store coming soon for six months, returning to the city after nearly six years.
“We have a pop-up Disney store coming to the first floor,” said Rhoda. “They will open for a sixth-month period and shop-fitting is about to start. They want to be here for the Christmas period. It’s good for everybody – they are a great brand.”
The pop-up nature of the store represents a toe in the water for the brand. The Disney store in Petty Cury closed in January 2012 after 15 years.
“People will remember they were in Cambridge before. This is an opportunity to come back and test the market and see if they want to come back for a permanent store. If you want them to stay… come shopping,” suggests Rhoda.
Disney’s first floor location, where Wallis used to be, reflects its status as a destination store.
“There are shops who don’t need a lot of passing trade because their shoppers come to them and they are suited to the first floor,” explains Rhoda. “Disney is an example of that. Others rely heavily on passing trade so they are better suited to being on the ground floor.”
The Grand Arcade is certainly continuing to attract big brands, then.
Another prestige name to drive footfall into the Grand Arcade this year is Tesla, which opened in April to a mixture of excitement and curiosity. Could an electric car manufacturer really work among the high fashion shops that grace the mall?
“It was unusual,” admits Rhoda. “It was a little bit of a leap of faith for Tesla and us. But electric vehicles are obviously the way forward and we would like Grand Arcade to be thought of as a forward-thinking. People can come here and see what’s coming into the market.
“Tesla has its own appeal, so we decided to try it. They could fit the cars in to a standard unit and the cars look stunning.
“Tesla are reporting good levels of sales and interest. You don’t buy a Tesla online. You come in and see it, touch it, play with the buttons and talk to the staff.
“You do that emotional touchy-feely thing that you can’t do online. So if you think about it, it’s a perfect thing to have in a shopping centre, as that’s what they’re all about.
“And, I have to say, shopping isn’t everything to all men…but to a lot of men cars are quite a lot!
“One of the most interesting bits of feedback I had was from a couple of female shoppers in John Lewis who said how wonderful it was that they could shop unhindered in there because their husbands go to the Tesla store.”
Rhoda describes the John Lewis as “the most wonderful I’ve seen” and says it is the envy of her fellow shopping centre manager friends.
No doubt it’s playing a huge part in maintaining footfall through the Grand Arcade.
“We are bucking the trend. Our footfall is up this quarter year on year,” reveals Rhoda. “The national trend for the year is down unless you’re London, the Trafford Centre or Bluewater. Smaller towns and cities have been struggling. Cambridge has proved it’s not in that category – it’s a prime retail destination.”
High street footfall in Cambridge for the first six months of the year was up on last year, according to Cambridge BID (Business Improvement District). Shopping centre footfall was down 11 per cent – but there has been major renovation work ongoing at The Grafton, where £28million is being invested under the watchful eye of centre manager John O’Shea, Rhoda’s predecessor at the Grand Arcade.
Rhoda cites The Grafton investment, along with improvement to the visitor experience introduced by Cambridge BID and the ongoing drive to bring in top new brands as encouraging signs for Cambridge’s retail future.
“There is this huge diversity of offer in Cambridge,” she says. “No matter what you want, you can find it. You have undercover shopping centres of different types. We have high street brands, aspirational brands, designer brands.
“I love the city. You can walk the most beautiful streets, enjoy tea rooms and there is a lovely range of independents.
“And you don’t just have to go shopping. As part of your trip you can enjoy the museums, exhibitions, the cinema, the tourist things like punting – and there is also a huge amount of food and drink. Park & Ride is useful for shoppers and encourages people to get here and not have to rush back. People will stay and have a coffee, or stay for lunch.
“But I always want to hear from customers if they want something done differently – we are easily contactable through our website.”
Against the onslaught of online options, ensuring there are good reasons to shop in store is a key part of Rhoda’s job.
“Over the years the job has changed out of all recognition,” she says. “It’s very commercially focused and retail is changing so rapidly. I’m providing a showcase that best matches the retailer’s needs.
“How can we maximise the opportunity of having bricks and mortar – a face-to-face shopping experience?
“If it’s salt for the water softener, I don’t want to lug that around. Whereas if it’s shoes, you want to try them on and check the colour against your outfit.
“So shopping has polarised into very different things and shopping centres need to ensure they adapt to meet the needs of retailers who are adapting to that and shoppers.
“They need to be far more accessible for the range of situations that our shoppers find themselves in – hidden disabilities, visible disabilities, attention-span issues.”
The Grand Arcade has a core team of just five, including Rhoda, looking after it and they call on a support cast to keep it clean, secure and fully let.
Rhoda’s brief covers business and strategic management, marketing, finance, monitoring and evaluation, facilities, health and safety, retailer and tenant liaison and operations such as cleaning and security.
“I make sure that the future of Grand Arcade is secure: an annual plan, three-year plan and five-year plan,” she says.
“We are icing the cake. It’s a good cake and we need to improve what we’ve already got. And we are coming up to 10-year lease renewals.”
For Christmas, new illuminated stars will bring the wow factor.
“The Grafton, Grand Arcade and Lion Yard are talking together about the switch-on of their lights and making sure that it’s a better experience for customers,” adds Rhoda, who is a married mother of three who describes keeping fit – she once trained for triathlons – among her hobbies.
But what does a shopping centre manager do when shopping herself?
“Because I work in this environment, I tend to do quite focused shopping. Wednesday’s late-night shopping is great – we are open until 7pm – so I go as I finish work.
“But I do like going shopping with friends and not having a list…”
The perfect shopping centre customer, then.